Trail Blazers able to zone in defensively, earn spot in Region 24 championship game


John Wood Community College guard Joshua Talton scored a pair of transition baskets during a 10-0 run to start the second half Saturday that propelled the Trail Blazers to a 69-51 victory over Illinois Central College in the Region 24 semifinals in Ina, Ill. | Matt Schuckman photo

INA, Ill. — It isn’t often John Wood Community College men’s basketball coach Brad Hoyt decides to have the Trail Blazers play zone defense.

It’s even rarer for them to play that style for an extended period.

Saturday was that rare occurrence where it was needed.

Trailing by four points at halftime of the Region 24 Tournament semifinal matchup with second-seeded Illinois Central College, third-seeded JWCC clamped down defensively by holding the Cougars scoreless the first 5 minutes, 23 seconds of the second half.

It allowed the Trail Blazers to go on a 10-0 run and take a lead they’d never relinquish in a 69-51 victory at Rend Lake College. 

“It was probably the most zone we’ve played in a game all year,” Hoyt said. “Our guys really responded and bought in a little bit. That got us some long rebounds, and we were able to get in transition and score.”

Now the Trail Blazers (19-12) find themselves in the familiar spot of playing for a berth in the NJCAA Division II national tournament. This is the ninth time in the last 13 years JWCC has reached the region title game, and it will face top-seeded Parkland at 2 p.m. Sunday on the Rend Lake.College campus. The Cobras (27-4) beat Danville 73-47 in the other semifinal.

Parkland, which ended the regular season ranked ninth nationally, defeated JWCC in both previous meetings, winning 59-55 in Champaign and 84-82 in overtime in Quincy.

“They’re good and they’re old,” Hoyt said of Parkland, which has seven sophomores on its roster. “They have a bunch of guys who played in the region title game a year ago. They are so versatile offensively. They out five guys on the floor that can really score it from different parts. They’re an offensive juggernaut to be honest with you.

“We will have to be better than we were today, but we get a chance to play on Sunday. That’s our goal from our very first team meeting. So let’s get after it.”

That was the attitude at halftime Saturday despite some early offensive struggles.

“I came in and I heard Josh Talton’s voice and he was like, ‘We’re fine. We’re in a good place,’” Hoyt said of the halftime locker room with his team trailing 33-29. “Talking to my staff afterward, that’s what they said all of the guys were saying before I got in the locker room. It was, ‘We’re good. Make some adjustments and we’re good, we’re good, we’re good.’”

A minute into the second half, JWCC freshman guard Jordan Shelton buried a 3-pointer from the left wing. A steal and layup by Talton with 17:45 to play gave the Trail Blazers a 34-33 lead, and his steal and dunk with 15:10 to go capped the 10-0 run.

Shelton and Talton played the top two spots on JWCC’s 2-3 zone and created havoc. Shelton led the Trail Blazers with 26 points and Talton added 14.

“Those guys are pretty quick from free-throw line to free-throw line,” Hoyt said. “They got out in transition and got us some separation.”

Shelton has scored 16 or more points in each of JWCC’s six games in its current win streak and posted 20 or more points four times in that stretch.

“He’s hard to contain,” Hoyt said. “We tell him all the time, ‘If you’re in a good mood, we’re in a good mood.’ He’s been in a good mood lately.”

So has Jake Wallingford, the 6-foot-8 freshman forward from Quincy Notre Dame who played 36 minutes and was a defensive presence along the baseline and near the basket, especially with sophomore forward Logan Robbins still sidelined with a sprained ankle.

“He was a warrior,” Hoyt said. “He was a monster that is not going to show up in the scorebook. He affected shots. Without Logan, we needed him on the floor. He was a warrior. He deserves an ice bath and some rest. He was tough, and he’s going to be tomorrow and he will be.”

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